A weather disturbance known as a 'tropical wave' was detected off the Atlantic coast of Africa on September 25th of this year. Although it sounds like a tropical wave is a surfing term, in fact, it is used to describe a meteorological event where an elongated area of low pressure - an 'atmospheric trough' - forms along a north-south axis. Tropical waves tend to move westerly across the tropics causing cloudiness or storms, but can also lead to tropical cyclones.
This particular event was dubbed 'Invest 97L' at the time - an 'invest' being meteorology-speak for a weather disturbance which is being monitored for cyclone development. As it moved westward over the next three days, Invest 97 reached the West Indies, becoming an organized weather system with sufficient strength to be dubbed Tropical Storm Matthew.
Moving further west into the Caribbean, Matthew intensified into a hurricane on September 29th. The next day it reached its peak intensity, a Category 5 storm with winds of 160 mph off the coast of Columbia. From there it made a sharp northerly turn making landfall as a Category 4 storm in Haiti and the eastern tip of Cuba on October 4th, then the Bahamas two days later.
Afterward Matthew continued northward skirting the coasts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. In the US, it only made landfall once on October 8th in the region as a Category 1 storm with winds of 75 mph. From there it lost strength, downgraded to a post-tropical storm as it moved away from the Carolina coast.
Hardest hit by the Matthew was the beleaguered and impoverished nation of Haiti, which is still recovering from the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. The southern coast took the brunt of the hit with winds up to 120 mph and a 10 foot storm surge that caused widespread flooding. 'Complete destruction', was how it was described by observers.
Despite forewarning that the storm was coming, the nation was without the resources to provide emergency shelter for those without adequate housing or to otherwise prepare. In its wake Matthew left close to 90,000 destroyed homes, including 90% of the homes on the southern coast. Over 800 people were killed as were 350,000 animals. Coconut and cocoa plantations were destroyed and most of the crops wiped out. Power and communications were also severely disrupted.
Another one of the consequences was the worsening of a cholera epidemic that had begun in 2010 after the earthquake and had become endemic by the time that Matthew arrived. The appearance of cholera, a bacterial infection spread by fecal contamination in water or food, was originally believed to have been the result of inadequate sanitation and water treatment in the aftermath of earthquake.
In fact, there has been a great deal of controversy over its origin. Previously there was no recorded history of this strain of cholera in Haiti and subsequent DNA fingerprinting identified a South Asian sub-strain in Haitian patients. This fed suspicions that the disease was introduced by Nepalese soldiers camped at a United Nations base. Six years after its outbreak and only two months before Matthew, the Secretary General of the United Nations officially accepted the UN's role in the epidemic.
Whatever its cause, the disease has struck about three quarters of a million Haitians and has killed over 9000. It has evolved from an acute epidemic into an endemic disease always present but ebbing and flowing with the seasons. The situation intensified after Matthew due to deteriorating hygienic conditions and the destruction of many cholera treatment facilities, especially in the south. 1300 new cases were reported in the first week after the storm.
On top of that, inadequate food supplies, the possible spread of the Zika virus and care for the injured, injured and traumatized were all concerns of health officials.
Anticipating the havoc it would cause the international efforts to provide assistance to Haiti began before Matthew had even arrived. The United Nations, United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Dominican Republic and Venezuela as well as numerous NGOs provided resources in the form of volunteers, equipment, food and medicines. These efforts intensified afterward.
On the health front, amongst the well-known international relief organizations such as the WHO, UNICEF, the Pan-American Health Organization, Doctors without Borders and the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia who all sent medical teams was a small organization headquartered in New Hampshire.
Homeopaths without Borders US is part of an organization with active chapters in Canada, the UK and Europe. Founded 20 years ago its mission is two fold: to introduce and promote homeopathy in parts of the world where it is not available and to provide homeopathic care in emergency situation.
Over its history, HWB-US has mostly been active in the Caribbean and Central America. But for a number of years, many of its activities have been focused in Haiti. Aside from sending teams of North American homeopaths to provide health services for underserved communities, it has also sponsored educational programs for healthcare professionals and community leaders.
Those who graduate from its program are known has Homeopathe Communautaire or Community Homeopath. The focus of their training is caring for people with acute, traumatic and epidemic disease.
Within a week after Matthew hit Haiti, HWB-US sent a team of homeopaths to provide emergency care. They arrived in the capital bearing donated homeopathic medicines, food, phones, solar chargers and a portable water purification system.
They spent 4 days in the coastal community of Petit Goave distributing homeopathic prophylaxis to protect residents from cholera and then traveled to Duchity, a rural town in need of healthcare. A second team arrived several weeks later, making there way to an area along southern coast. Working with HWB trained Haitian homeopaths they established a 3 day clinic before moving onto another community in early November.
While homeopathic care would service many of the needs of the afflicted populations they attended, the team's presence was particularly apt because of the cholera epidemic.
Homeopathy and cholera go back a long way together. Until the modern era it was perhaps the only effective treatment for this lethal disease. So too today, when cholera is considered a pandemic affecting millions of people worldwide and causing of somewhere around 100,000 fatalities annually (as recently as the 1980's this number was put at 3 million annual fatalities), acute and prophylactic homeopathic care can play an important role.1 This is especially the case because the low tech, low cost nature of homeopathy makes it most appropriate for the underserved populations in the developing world where cholera almost exclusively is present.
The documented history of cholera begins in 1817 when the first of seven pandemics started in India and made its way across Southeast Asia, the Middle East, East Africa and the eastern borders of Europe. The seventh or 'final' pandemic began in Indonesia in the 1960's when a new strain of the disease-causing bacteria emerged and is still present in affected areas.
It was during the second pandemic that began in the 1820's and by the 1830's first swept across Europe and then into North America and Mexico when homeopathic treatment proved its efficacy against what became known as 'King Cholera'.
Based on detailed reports of the symptoms as it moved westward from Asia, Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, identified the appropriate homeopathic medicines for each stage of the disease even before its arrival in Europe in 1831. When it did appear the mortality rates amongst those treated by 'old school' physicians was extremely high. Depending on the account, somewhere between 40 to 80% of those who contracted cholera died under what was consider conventional care. In contrast, the homeopathic hospital in London reported a 9% mortality rate, and in Russian it was 10%. 2
An interesting side note was that at the time Austria had banned the practice of homeopathy because of opposition from entrenched medical and pharmaceutical interests. Even so, many people illegally turned to homeopathy for treatment. In the end, because of the disparity between the efficacy of the two different schools of medicine, authorities were forced to repeal the ban.
Similar disparities occurred in the New World. In Rio de Janeiro, the mortality rate of those under homeopathic care was 2% against 40-60% under standard care. In Cincinnati, it was 3% versus 40-70%.
Another interesting anecdote concerns a homeopathic physician in Cincinnati who on opening his practice was the object of much scorn and abuse.3 But the efficacy of his treatments when cholera struck the city soon afterward dramatically changed his reputation. He was later to boast that he did not loose a single patient during the epidemic. When the disease reappeared in 1849, patients stood in crowds that overflowed into the streets to be seen by him.
The three main homeopathic remedies that have proved effective in both the treatment and prophylaxis of cholera as identified by Hahnemann and verified by later practitioners and of service in Haiti in the 21st century are preparations derived from camphor, copper and white hellobore. Known as Camphora, Cuprum metallicum and Veratrum album, respectively, each one has its own specific sphere of action in regards to the symptom picture for which it is appropriately prescribed.
Camphora is of great service in the earliest stages of the disease before the vomiting and diarrhea starts and the body begins to become overwhelmed by the toxins. It is characterized by a sudden collapse, a bluish icy face, and a pervasive coldness (even the tongue can be cold).
Veratrum is used when there is profuse watery diarrhea preceded by pain n the abdomen, internal sense of burning, cold sweat on the forehead and coldness of the body to touch.
Cramping and spasms along with the vomiting and diarrhea identify Cuprum. The cramps are not only in the abdominal, but also in the fingers and legs.
In fact, the consequences of these homeopathic successes with these and a few other medicines went beyond the treatment of cholera, especially in the United States. It was not just patients who began to seek out the services of homeopathic doctors, but 'old school' physicians who sought out training in homeopathy. Thus began what in the history of American homeopathy is called 'the Golden Era'. The second half of the 19th century saw the establishment of numerous homeopathic hospitals and medical colleges. Some of the greatest practitioners whose work and writings we still avidly study today were active during this period.
It was also at the beginning of this period, 1847 to be exact, that the AMA was founded as protectionist counter-reaction against what was perceived as a tidal wave that could engulf the whole medical profession. The fraught history of the relations between the AMA and other schools of medicine has its roots in this origin story, the repercussions of which still manifest today.